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Monday, November 16, 1998 Published at 08:44 GMT


UK

The Lord Chancellor's new clothes

The Lord Chancellor at the State Opening of Parliament

At present, one thing the Lord Chancellor doesn't have to worry about, as he prepares for another day in the House, is that he doesn't have a thing to wear.

Nor does he run the risk of being outdone in the clothes stakes. Since the late 17th century, traditions have dictated that he dons a full-bottomed ceremonial wig, tights, breeches buckled shoes for his day to day work.

However, after around 400 years, the Lord Chancellor has decided that the finery is well and truly out of fashion. But his bid to get rid of some of the trimmings is not going down well with some Conservative stalwarts.

First in fashion

The Lord Chancellor's robes are post-Reformation and their design seems to date from the late 16th century.


[ image: The wig was adopted in the late 17th century when wigs were fashionable]
The wig was adopted in the late 17th century when wigs were fashionable
The gold lace embroidery on the robes grew out of the 16th century when elaborate decoration was in vogue. The first Chancellor to appear in a portrait dressed in such a robe was Sir Christopher Hatton (1587-91) who is said to have had flamboyant tastes.

One account describes him as "a gay young cavalier never called to the bar, and chiefly famed for his handsome person, his taste in dress and his skill in dancing".

The wig was adopted in the late 17th century when wigs were fashionable, and continued to be worn by judges after they went out of fashion.

Quick change

Lord Irvine has proposed to the House Procedures Committee that he should wear the Lord Chancellor's gown, coat jacket, and ruffled collar, with ordinary black shoes and trousers while speaking from the Government front bench in his role as justice minister.

He has also asked to be able to spend more time behind the dispatch box, where he can take off his wig and gown, while leading debate on government Bills. At present he can only do that during the committee stage.

But he says he would continue to wear the full regalia when sitting on the Woolsack (the seat of Lord Chancellors in the House of Lords, formerly made of a large square of wool ) for question time, the formal stages of parliamentary Bills and on ceremonial occasions.

"I have no objection on great occasions of state, like the State Opening of Parliament, to wearing the full kit. It is very very uncomfortable, but I am not proposing that I should not wear it on the Woolsack," he said.

In his application he argued that the dignity of the office would not be reduced by the changes and the Procedure committee agreed backing his call for a more modern look.

However the committee has noted that there was strong opposition to the proposals.

'It's wrong to dress down'

The most vehement opposition has come from the former Conservative Deputy Leader of the Lords, Earl Ferrers, who has described the planned changes as a "big mistake".


[ image: The gold lace embroidery on the robes grew out of the 16th century]
The gold lace embroidery on the robes grew out of the 16th century
"The Lord Chancellor is one of the highest office holders in the land. When you look at him on the Woolsack, it's not just Lord Irvine there, it's the Lord Chancellor and it's wrong to dress down," Lord Ferrens said.

"He will end up wearing the same uniform as the clerks on the table, with a wig and gown. Black Rod, the Gentleman Usher and doorkeepers are all going to carry on wearing their uniforms, so why shouldn't the Lord Chancellor? It's just more salami slicing away at tradition," he said.

Ear Ferrens has will move amendments to the Procedure Committee's report rejecting both the changes to the Chancellors dress, and the recommendation that would allow the him to be able to speak from the Government Front Bench when the House is sitting as a House.

The matter may go to a vote.



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